If you’re considering a career as a pathologists’ assistant, you may already be aware that pathology is among the highest paying master’s degrees. You may wonder whether you could set your sights even higher and start working on a Ph.D. while completing your master’s degree coursework. Although it may be possible to make some headway toward your doctoral studies while working on your master’s degree, this progress would usually be indirect and, for many students, may not have the desired effect on their careers.
Why Most Master’s in Pathology Programs Aren’t the Best Started Toward a Ph.D.
In the graduate schools that allow students to take coursework toward their master’s degree and their doctoral degree simultaneously, the coursework taken for your master’s degree in such a program is typically equivalent to the classes you must take during the first couple of years of the Ph.D. curriculum. Unfortunately, this scenario isn’t necessarily the case in the field of pathology, due largely to discrepancies between the purposes of earning a master’s degree and a doctorate in this subject.
In general, master’s degrees focus on career preparation, while Ph.D. programs revolve around research. This fundamental difference in focus means that the practical clinical skills you develop through studies and clinical rotations in a master’s degree program in pathology may not be as relevant as you would expect to a Ph.D. program in the field. Given these differences in focus and the small number of master’s in pathology programs currently accredited in the United States, you may not be able to realistically expect to find a combined master’s and Ph.D. program in pathology. The field isn’t large enough, and that combination isn’t in high enough demand, for the small number of schools with accredited pathologists’ assistant programs to offer this combination of degree programs at this time.
If you’re not afraid to forge your own path and you still want to go through with earning both a master’s and a Ph.D. in pathology, there is an alternative option you can pursue. What you can do is seek out a doctoral program in pathology that offers advanced standing, which will allow you to enter the Ph.D. program with some courses or credits already completed.
Because different programs have different requirements for advanced standing eligibility and not all programs will award advanced standing under any circumstances, it is important to do your research before enrolling in a master’s degree program. You may have to earn your master’s degree at the same institution where you intend to pursue your Ph.D. or take some form of comprehensive exam to qualify for advanced standing. The sooner you know what will be required of you to achieve advanced standing in a Ph.D. program, the sooner you can begin preparing to meet those requirements.
You are more likely to find a dual degree program that awards a Ph.D. and a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) in pathology than one that culminates in a master’s degree and a Ph.D. together as part of one program.
What It Means to Have a Ph.D. in Pathology
If you want to be a pathologists’ assistant working in clinical practice, a master’s in pathology is most likely the right educational path for you. You wouldn’t pursue a Ph.D. in pathology just to work in a hospital’s pathology lab. You might, however, choose to earn your doctoral degree to help you advance to a role as a laboratory manager. A Ph.D. isn’t strictly required for this role, which you can obtain with just a master’s degree in pathology and plenty of experience, but having this advanced education could give you a competitive edge when seeking career advancement.
The reason most pathology Ph.D. students pursue a doctoral degree is to work in research or academia. They may aspire to work in a field like experimental pathology, teach at the college level or move into a senior-level research role like research laboratory scientist. It would be unusual for a pathologists’ assistant who is content working in a clinical laboratory setting to go for their Ph.D., because the focus of their coursework and dissertation project would align more toward research and academia than continued clinical practice in the pathology laboratory of a hospital or medical examiners’ office.
If you want to advance your career through further education but don’t think a Ph.D. is for you, consider one of the American Society for Clinical Pathology’s certificate programs in areas like leadership, laboratory management and pathology informatics.